As some of you may have noticed by now, I have a fascination with cemeteries. That interest has manifested itself in my book, Walking with the Ancestors–The Historic Cemeteries of Trinidad, which was published in 2014 and documents the rich history of our burial grounds and some of the people who lie in them. The older graveyards are an invaluable repository of history and they provide a somewhat tangible connection to the founders of our cultural and ethnic legacy.
Our post-independence experience and conditioning has taught us to despise all history as being "colonial" and the heritage of "oppressors" with pale skins. The inevitable state of affairs resulting from this prevailing mentality has been the swift destruction of our anthropological artefacts, ranging from the ornate architectural gems to documents, photos and books.
Historic cemeteries have suffered the neglect of the decades. National policy dictates that a grave may be reused every eight or ten years, so that inevitable overcrowding has seen older monuments being destroyed to make way for new burials.
There is, however, another more rapidly developing and worrying trend afoot which is the obliteration of historically important graves for their wrought iron elements.
Vandalism in cemeteries is nothing new. In 1911 the Port-of-Spain Gazette reported that mausoleums and vaults at Lapeyrouse were being broken into and robbed. Jawbones were being smashed for their gold dentures and even skulls were stolen and being sold to obeah practitioners for five dollars apiece. The bronze medallion erected to the memory of Dr J G B Siegert (of Angostura Bitters fame) was also stolen for its metal.
Within recent times, however, with the insatiable demand for scrap metal, everything from old cars to water mains have become targets for scrappers. Cemeteries have not been spared.
During the 19th century and up to the 1920s, heavy cast iron enclosures were popular for families that could afford sumptuous memorials for their dead. These fences were imported directly from France or England via mail-order or were available from early funeral haberdashers like J Haynes Clark livery stables. A wide variety of patterns was available ranging from elegant French curves to castings depicting classical themes. These have since become examples of the art of the metallurgist but the number is decreasing every day.
At the 1868 Paradise Cemetery in San Fernando, the complete railing surrounding the grave of Canon Horatio Nelson Huggins, one of the most influential and respected clergymen in the district who died in 1895, has been stolen and allegedly now adorns a house.
The problem is far worse and accelerated at Lapeyrouse Cemetery in Port-of-Spain, where within the space of a few months, several significant sites have been heavily defaced. Some of the iron has been merely cut away with hacksaw blades but in other cases, they have been brutally rooted out from the concrete and stone abutments in which they are moored.
These are ruined along with the marble and leaden epitaphs which record the existence of the people who lie in those graves. The desecrated resting places are numerous.
The graves of some prominent people have been almost destroyed–William H Burnley of Orange Grove (d.1850), the richest man in the colony in his time, the magnificent, gothic Blanc Truijillo vault and the Blasini tomb.
On my most recent walk through Lapeyrouse, I came across a forlorn tomb. I had seen it before but now only a fragment of its once decorative cast iron paling remains. In their haste to rob the dead, the scrappers have destroyed the grave completely, down to the marble slab which once bore inscriptions to members of the Dyett family, written in French. Now, only one survives because it is engraved on the single largest fragment of the tombstone that remains. Surmounted by relief images of doves, it reads "ICI REPOSE ELIZA DYETT, MORT LE 24 OCTOBRE 1874"
The obliteration of these gravestones and their continued vandalism, robs present and future generations of a vital heritage resource.
We live in a country where few public records are properly preserved and these colonial era graves sometimes are all that remain as evidence that our ancestors existed. Most of the clans who should have taken natural responsibility for their upkeep are either extinct in the island or else have lost touch with their heritage and thus, their ancestors' dust is relegated to the care of local government agencies which even less so appreciate the true value of our cemeteries.